Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Alabama Jails and Prisoners Swamped With COVID-Related Problems

For weeks, Dylan Garrard fell asleep on a thin foam mat on the floor of his jail cell, next to a toilet. The two bunks in the cell meant for just two prisoners were already occupied. Garrard was locked up on a probation violation stemming from a 4-year-old burglary case, according to court records. “The mats are so thin you can feel the concrete through them, he said.”

The Jackson County Jail where Garrard slept on the floor was built to house 208 prisoners, but now regularly holds 220 to 250. So dozens of men are sleeping on the floor on any given night.

Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Rocky Harnen said they’re working with judges to reduce the jail population by lowering bail, or releasing prisoners on recognizance. “We’re releasing people as quick as he can,” said Harnen.

But an review of the jail’s publicly available records, published in a story on December 18, 2020, showed many prisoners booked on misdemeanors, non-violent drug charges, and probation violations.

The backup is the result of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) halting the transfer of prisoners from county jails to state prisons last March due to COVID concerns. When the state began moving prisoners again in April, it heavily limited the numbers to allow for quarantine of arriving prisoners.

Deputy Harnen said that before the ADOC changed its practices, the Jackson County Jail averaged about 170-200 prisoners a night. In addition to a shortage of beds, prisoners and their families also reported shortages to of clothing, food, and basic supplies including toilet paper.

Starting in summer 2020, the ADOC started testing every prisoner transferred to state prison, according to a spokesperson. Any time a new arrival tested positive, a two- to three-week hold was reportedly placed on additional transfers.

“It’s a problem statewide,” said the president of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, Derrick Cunningham.

As of mid-December 2020, there were almost 2,000 prisoners in county jails awaiting transfer to state prison, found. Of those, almost 1,700 had been waiting more than a month.

Backlogs of prisoners waiting in jails for transfer to state custody has long been an issue in the state. In 1998, the ADOC settled a lawsuit with counties by agreeing to pick up state prisoners within that 30-day window.

In 2020, with federal coronavirus funds available, the state was able to pay counties for holding prisoners longer than a month. But the funds that provided for $28 per prisoner per day expired at the end of the year.

“We’ve been able to adjust to this because there’s been some money coming in,” said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the state’s Association of County Commissions. “But that doesn’t solve overcrowding in the jails that don’t have room in the first place,” he noted.

In Montgomery County, Sheriff Cunningham said he faces staff shortages. Three dozen prisoners have tested positive there since the pandemic began.

“Everything the state has to do when inmates get to prisons, those are the same things we’ve got to do when they get to our jail,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got to quarantine and test too. So the burdens are really coming back on the counties. DOC won’t take them if they test positive for COVID, but we still have to house them in our jail.”

Despite ADOC’s COVID mitigation measures, more than 1,000 prisoners and 700 staff have tested positive for the virus. 48 prisoners and two employees have died — a mortality rate for prisoners that far exceeds the national average. 


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login